Vietnam...after Cambodia...was tiger balm, for me, most of the time.
(Tiger balm: not made of tiger. Soothing balm for headaches, joint aches, and, as we had to learn through experience, sand flea bites and other varieties of bug bites. Oh, and sunburn! It's kind of magic).
Maybe it sounds cheesy, but Vietnam was tiger balm for my soul. It was my spoon full of sugar to swallow Cambodia...okay, it felt like one giant party.
We started by cruising down the Mekong, landing in a scary border town followed by a scary border bus ride to a scary motorcycle taxi to an absolute OASIS of a hostel--breakfast, television, hot SEPARATE shower, air conditioner. After a lovely night of sleep, we walked through some lovely parks to the educational (albeit horrifying) war museum, which gave me a completely new outlook on the Vietnam War. Of course, it was skewed towards their point of view, but it's fascinating to be able to see a war from both sides.
We also stopped for ice cream that day, and were able to make our way pretty well around the city. However, neither of us particularly loving cities, we hopped on a bus the next day to the lovely little beach destination of Mui Ne. The bus we hopped on just happened to be the best bus we rode in Asia...empty, upper bed-seats, clean bathroom ON the bus. It was heaven, and to top that off, I had a good book and some chips...yep, paradise.
Paradise continued when we found a little bungalow to stay in, right on the beach. We spent several days swimming in the glorious water, watching the kite surfers crash, walking around in the beachy rain, eating Indian food, and shopping for beachy jewelry. After we got sick of the attack of the sand flies (Court was co-VERED) and after we rented a motorbike (love it) and went sand-duning and hiking with some kind (and eventually greedy) boys to "Fairy Springs," we hopped on another bus up to Nha Trang.
On this bus we met Arthur, a young Californian who had also visited his brother in the Peace Corps in Thailand and was now travelling through Vietnam. So began our party days--lots of fun in Nha Trang in the evening, an accidental trip on a Booze Cruise through Nha Trang Bay (we signed up thinking it was a snorkeling cruise...about three minutes of snorkeling, a random visit to an aquarium, and lots of wine, swimming, and karaoke) and then, planning to get up to Ha Long Bay by Court's birthday on December 13th, we hopped up the country, stopping briefly in Hue to wander along the river.
Vietnam is really (yet another) gorgeous country. Even though we shot quickly up the coast, we got some nice glimpses, and we really were having so much fun. And suddenly, we were on the long-awaited sojourn to Halong Bay (Dragon Bay--so named as all of the islands look like parts of a dragon's back). I really love the Vietnam coast--and despite bratty tourists, stressed out tour-hunting, the crazy streets of Hanoi and SO. MUCH. RAIN, I loved Halong Bay. It was so fun to sail the bay, kayak in the bay, meet some actual NICE Americans and some more fun Austrailians, and accidentally hop on another Booze Cruise (the Halong Party Cruiser, baby!)
We spent an overnight on the boat, and woke up on my cousin's birthday to a somewhat sunrise view of the bay. While much of the people on our boat had a rough night, accompanied by rats and no water, we had a very nice night in our little berth! I loved staying on a boat!
After breakfast, we sailed to Cat Ba Island, the only inhabited island in the bay, and ended up on this random, strenous, occasionally terrifying hike through the national park on the island to some truly breathtaking views.
We detached ourselves from the whiny tour group (we were planning to stay on the island for a few days), found a hostel with a fantastic view (and smelly bathroom) and wandered around for the beaaaaaaautiful beaches. It was way too cold for ME to swim, although that didn't deter many, but I was very happy to wander the cliffside trails, and I think my cuz had a good birthday!
That night, we ended up going out and having a fantastic time with some Israelis we met at a bar, while we were having the birthday drink I convinced Court she needed. It was a fun, crazy, night, and the next day, we definitely needed to recover. We ran into Arthur and his climber friend Nick, and we all had dinner with a nice South African couple, where I discovered Vietnamese dinner rolls, my latest favorite food.
After my our stay in Cat Ba, and an eventful trip back to Hanoi, the capital, we suddenly only had a week left of our adventure! At this point, we were getting a little nervous about the military situation in South Korea, where we had another ten hour (ick) layover, and about our visa situation (we had already overstayed, and were given a lot of conflicting advice, most which was we'd simply bribe the officers at the airport and be on our way).
After a quick stopover in Hanoi, and seeing the Chronicles of Narnia in the theater (gotta love that Western world influence sometimes) we spent a few days in the beautiful mountain city of Sa Pa, via train. The overnight train ride was rather unfortunate as we'd gotten ripped off (thanks for all that magic, Asia) but it still was kind of cool! Nothing like the trains in Europe sadly...but not bad.
In Sapa, I started to get really excited for Christmas, as it was freezing and we spent many joyful hours around fires with Vietnamese pho (chicken soup basically, delicious) and coffee. Sapa is also a fabulous place to shop, so we loaded up on some gifts and beautiful scarves, purses, and knock-off Ray Bans.
We also hiked around a beautiful little park, way up on the hill, and got a great view of the valley, lost each other, found each other, and saw lots of rice hats. (Yes, a true stereotype that I absolutely LOVED). We also went to a church, sat on the wrong side of the church (the men's side), got surrounded by another tourist family for pictures, and were flummoxed by the service. I expected Christmas carols and a service I knew...nothing, ha.
On our way down from Sapa, we met an awesome Italian named Marco who convinced us to journey to the border of China and try to step through. We couldn't--we started walking up to the bridge when guns were waved, and that was it for me!--but it was a grand adventure in any case.
Our last final days in Hanoi included more shopping, ice cream, a traditional water puppet show (a real art form which was pretty sweet) and samples of pho, Indian food, and Vietnamese weasel coffee, which I also loved. (Yes--that is the coffee that is passed through the intestines of a weasel...tastes like chocolate, no joke). We visited temples, had coffee with an old Vietnamese Frenchman (born in Vietnam, raised in France) who let me practice my pitiful French, and spent a lot of time exploring the city. We also spent about an entire day trying on beautiful Vietnamese silk, I bought a dress and my cousin a shirt as a late birthday present. It took a lot of convincing to get her to accept it, but I think she ended up liking it. :) Another highlight of our last few days was a trip to visit Ho Chi Minh, or "Uncle Ho" as he is still called in Vietnam. It was our second mummy--although he was so well preserved and so ridiculously protected that I got shooed and glared by the soldiers at for staring at the little old man who seemed to be napping (in a giant mausoleum in a giant park).
Before we knew it...we were on our way out of the country! Our trip was at a close...and we got to the airport, unaccountably nervous due to our visas. And was that an adventure...the guy was a jerk, he had the nasty mole-hair, and he threatened detainment if we didn't provide more moola.
Let me just say, I was NOT being detained in Vietnam two days before Christmas. So, we smiled determinedly (well, I did) having learned that if you yell at a man in Vietnam, they unforgivably Lose Face and the situation will grow progessively worse (as we witnessed on our ill-fated tour in Halong Bay). Although we had to pay a little more than we thought, I had pictured detainment and huge fines, so I was relieved at the 30 or so dollars we lost...I hate being ripped off, but I was so grateful he didn't break out the handcuffs I saw, and I was so grateful to be going home for Christmas!!!
Ok, going to California to be with my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandpa for Christmas...but close enough. :)
You can't carry them with you if you want to survive."
(Florence & the Machine)
When we were traveling around Thailand, we met two German girls who had traveled for two months in India. One remarked that, whileamazing, it was also "hard on the heart." While I'm sure India might be much worse, Cambodia was very hard onmy heart--it is one of the poorest countries in the world.It's also a beautiful country: we spent several days in Siem Reap, while not my favorite city in the world, Angkor Wat was really amazing.
Despite the insane amounts of tourists (Chinese and Korean and Australian and Japanese and...) sunrise at Angkor Wat was a breath taking experience...I felt like Aladdin looking at the Taj Mahal from him humble abode.I also liked a temple called Na Phrom, that had been overtaken by trees. The guidebook said something about this temple showing the "awesome power and fecundity" of the jungle, and it's true. It reminded me how much I love ruins and archaeology: it just boggles my mind how much history is in these stones. I liked just sitting on some of them and soaking it in, imagining the lives that had gone by these very rocks and woods.
The ruins were awesome, the people, not so much. Not just the tourists (although they were difficult, but also amusing: one time a group of young Chinese guys surrounded me, each wanting an individual picture with me. One was particularly scandalized when I was taller than him, and made me stand a few steps down. I felt kind of beautiful, haha); the locals too. Constantly being swindled, begged for money, yelled at, called "hey lady" and seeing the many victims of the still-present landmines was hard. It was even harder to see all of this surrounded by such beauty.
After Angkor Wat and the downright stress of Siem Reap (which for me was made worse by a persistent cough, an unfortunate experience with couch surfing i.e. the floor and a nasty cockroach-ridded bathroom along with a puking roommate, being lectured by little kids on how much money I have, and the constant threat of being ripped off) we set off for a rural province called Ratanakri.
While very impoverished, it was so beautiful--we saw waterfalls, elephants, mountains and crater lakes, all marred by the Red Dust of Ratanakri (which still is present in my pack, somehow) and the little kids with distended stomachs on the side of the roads. Although it was also more exciting by the fact that we got lost while navigating our own little...wait for it...motorcycle! I made Courtney drive; she has experience from her 4-wheelers at home, and I can barely handle my mountain bike so I thought it would be safer.
Travel around Cambodia was always an adventure: one time, my pack got soaked in fish sauce, leaving me with wet spots in the exact place where pit stains would be; my cousin's packed got completely covered in the Red Dust; we were constantly being shuffled from bus to bus; on one bus every time we moved the other passengers (all Cambodians) laughed hysterically and got a huge kick out of watching us eat the weird food they offered; at a bus stop we watched a slave monkey; another bus stop we ate rice out of strange tubes and played with little girls whose teeth had rotted out (my heart still breaks). Don't even get me started on the bathrooms we had to endure.
After some time spent in Kratie, watching the most beautiful sunsets on the Mekong, and another day in Phnom Penh, we sailed down the Mekong towards Vietnam.
Cambodia was the most stressful time of the trip; it was heartbreaking, and I went through a small personal crisis brought on by (my new favorite book) Three Cups of Tea. As an English major, I know the best books will make you laugh, cry, and cause an existential crisis, or at least make you think--and this book sure did. So I think the poverty I saw was even worse in my eyes after that.
Unlike most of the other countries I've visited, I didn't feel much of an emotional wrench when I left Cambodia. The food was okay, the people, while friendly, were still scarred by the recent Khmer Rouge, as was the landscape. Even Angkor Wat was not immune to the Khmer Rouge, and as a result much of it was irreversibly damaged.
Seeing the scars of such a recent war also kind of woke me up, and visiting Vietnam would do the same thing. Living in the Western United States, all of that seems so far away--civil wars, wars fighting for freedom, lost boys...
I know poverty and all that exists in the United States, but it was startling there. People all over the world are still fighting for our freedom while we stress about what college to go to. It's very illuminating, and let's just say I was VERY grateful this Thanksgiving! (Which incidentally took place while we were in Cambodia--and I managed to get both my siblings, both my parents, and our pets on the web cam via skype!)
I sound like I've never travelled before; I'm not even sure Cambodia is the poorest country I've been to. The other countries certainly had their issues; Thailand is still being inunduated by protesters, as was Peru and Ecuador while I was there. And Vietnam, while generally peaceful, is communist, which seems to enhance corruption in the state (you'll read more about that later, aren't you excited?).
Looking back, I was kind of glad to see the end of Cambodia--Vietnam, despite the troubles with our visa (we were only given a two-week visa rather than the standard 30-day; thanks to being too trustworthy and getting ripped off), felt like a fresh start.
**Disclaimer: The idea for this clever little blog did NOT, in fact, spring from my own brain, but from here**
Here's a little list (I'm slightly addicted to lists) of random observations I made during our adventures in Thailand, starting with "A" and moving on down the list. Some letters I was more enthusiastic about; others, I just could not think of ANYTHING, such as with "q," predictably. I hope you enjoy, I certainly enjoyed writing it!
ANIMALS: the stray animals will break your heart.
BIRTHDAYS, BUCKET SHOWERS, and BAI NAI: the day you were
born is much more important than the date, i.e. they celebrate on the day of the week you were born at that particular time of year, like the second Tuesday in November and whatnot. we experienced the infamous bucket showers while staying with Liz...not bad, especially on hot days! But definitely gave an involuntary squeal every time the first bucket was poured over the head. finally, as a greeting, Tha
is will say, "Bai nai?" meaning, "where are you going?" It's kind of like our, "what's up?"
COLOR-CODES: every day of the week has a different color. at some schools, the kid's uniform shirt must match the day of the week that color happens to be!
DIVING, DRAGONFLIES and DANCING: aw, I love diving. The dragonflies are red. And traditional dancing is awesome, and so hard! My hands do not bend that far--when the girls are babies, they will have their hands soaked in warm water and pushed back, and then when they're in lessons, the hands are taped back to achieve the best curve.
ELEPHANTS and EGGS: I love elephants, they are SO CUTE, and we finally saw a baby one on our last day in Chiang Mai! As for eggs, in our friend Megan's village, a group of Christian missionaries live nearby, and on Easter, they went around handing out Easter eggs. In Thailand, if someone hands you an entire egg, it means they never want to see you again. Hence, the Christians had a lot of apologizing to do!
FANTA, and FIELD TRIPS: Orange Fanta is somehow better when you're abroad. Field trips are not the to-do they are in the states; the teacher merely grabs the kids and you can wander around for as long as you wish. No permission slips, no nothing!
GENEROSITY and GEEKS: The Thais are some of the most generous people on the planet. Although they do have this weird custom of geeks: every married person probably has a geek, i.e. mistress, on the side, and this is perfectly acceptable and the entire village will know, although it's not completely advertised.
HITCHHIKING, HAIR and HUMIDITY: Hitchhiking, will not encouraged when you're alone, is fun in a group; and as previously discussed, the generous nature of the Thais always had them rearranging their truck for us and refusing any sort of compensation! My hair, as you can imagine, reacted very badly to the humidity, as did my skin...I loved Thailand and most of SE Asia, but I honestly don't know how people survive the humidity!!
INDIGO: As in dye. It's beautiful! We were given the opportunity to try it out, and it smells super funky, but kind of good. It's made of a local plant, so it's all organic. The fabric ends up any shade between dark green and deep blue!
JANKY: A word I say all the time now, thanks to my cuz.
KING, KHANOMS, and KARAOKE: Everyone in Thailand loves their king. Every day, in public places, his anthem is played, and every house has a least one picture of the king inside, if not multiple. Even when you go to the movies, you'll watch a short film and hear the anthem prior. Khanoms are any kind of snack, usually something sweet, that is customarily brought when you visit anyone, like a hostess gift. And finally, karaoke is a huge pastime and you will do it everywhere: parties, camping, etc.
LANGUAGES and LA: Within Thailand, they have several dialects of Thai, as mentioned, my Thai name was in the northern dialect. Everyone in the north speaks this dialect, as well as the national version of Thai. "La" means handsome, and I used it all the time as it's accompanied with a fun hand gesture.
MONKS, MILKING OUT, MASSAGES, MOLES and MAI BEN RAI: Monks, wearing their customary bright orange outfits, are everywhere and I love them! Breasts in Thailand are called "mountains of milk," I got told often that I was "milking out." In addition to our sketchy massage in Pai, we got a much nicer on in Chiang Mai, although I'm still not exactly flexible, and it was occasionally excruciating. The back-cracking and usage of tiger balm is quite nice, though. We also got a foot massage from fishys...our feet were so soft afterwards although it tickled so much!! Moles, especially with long, nasty hair growing out of them, are a status symbol, a sign of wisdom, so the old men especially prize them. They are nothing but GROSS in my mind. Finally, "mai ben rai" is the Thai equivalent of "no worries!" and can be an answer to anything.
NIGHT MARKETS and NICKNAMES: Night markets in Thailand are the best! The best stuff, the best haggling, the best atmosphere. Everyone has a nickname in Thailand that usually sounds nothing like their five-syllable-long given name. For example, Liz's roommate's full name is Haittaratt, and her nickname is Lyette. I guess they both have "t's"...
OVALTINE: iced. it's the best.
PANTS, PAD THAI, PAYING and POMEGRANATES: fisherman pants, which I always thought were weird, are ubiquitous and quite comfy, and are cute! Pad thai is AMAZING, and I love that it never tastes quite the same. Old people always pay--wahoo, and pomegranates rock here: they're white-pink on the outside and sweet on the inside.
RICE and ROACHES: SO MANY KINDS OF RICE!!! Sticky rice, purple rice, plain white rice, dessert rice...the list goes on. Can't say I'm a huge fan of rice, but sticky rice is pretty good! Especially when mixed with coconut milk. And Thailand, unfortunately, introduced me to cockroaches. The most memorable experience was an overnight bus infested with them...somehow Court and I both slept on that bus. But, EW.
SUGAR, SNAILS, SUWAI, STREET FOOD, SPIRIT HOUSES and SCAMS: Even my sweet tooth could not handle the excessive sweetness present in many Thai dishes and snacks. At one point, Liz's bathroom was overrun by the BIGGEST snails I have ever seen. "Suwai" means beautiful, and it was definitely one of my ten go-to words, although I figured out near the end of our trip that using it in a different tone means something like fu-ugly...street food can be delicious and terrifying and disgusting, and we had all of those experiences and more with street food. Spirit houses are one of my favorite Buddhist traditions. You build someone a spirit house when they die, and every day for a year you light the incense on the house and give them offerings, to ease their transition between lives. Finally, scamming is an unfortunate part of life in Southeast Asia, and it's not always easy to catch--the borders are the worst!!
TUK-TUKS, THAI-NAPPING, and TRAFFIC: tuk-tuks are ubiquitous and can be cool but are mostly annoying. but hey, when you're in need of a ride at 4 a.m., they rock. As previously discussed in the blog, Thai-napping is rampant and is always crazy! We also got 'Nam-napped (more on that later). And TRAFFIC in Asia is a WHOLE different organism than traffic anywhere else. I thought South America was crazy, but Asia was a whole different ball game. Unlike in the states, it's better to NOT look both ways. Never let 'em see you sweat!
WAI-ING, WHITENESS and WATS: By far my favorite Thai custom is wai-ing, where you fold your hands like you're praying and bow your head to people. Different placement of the hands is required for monks, elders, etc, but I pretty much wai-ed everyone like a monk. Whiteness is sort of like tanning here: everyone wants to be paler, and they have tons of whitening products (even for the armpits, as I made the mistake of buying whitening deoderant...). Although unlike most of our tanning products (except actual tanning and maybe the chemicals in spray-tanning) the whitening products contain bleach. So if you use them continually, you end up a funny grey color. everyone called us beautiful, mostly because of our skin, but hey, I wasn't complaining! FINALLY, wats. Wats--temples--are everywhere and are crazy decadent. All are curly-cued and gold-tinged and some are insane, but either way, you'll find one on every other corner!
YEARS: Last notice: years. The Thais go by the Buddhist timeline, beginning with the year that Buddha achieved enlightenment (I think, although I've had several different bits of information about this) and therefore the year is 2553.
WELL. Wasn't this fun? Wishing you all a fantastic New Year and Christmas!!!! xxx
"As we push away we pray We will see a better day." (last two lines of the Loi Krathong song)
The festival of Loi Krathong (pronounced roy gratone, sort of) finally came! Ever since my brother went when he was in Thailand I was looking forward to this event. And what a weekend it was... We got into the Loi Krathong spirit pretty quickly after saying goodbye to Liz's village and all of her lovely neighbors (the goodbye consisted of some laughter and pointing as I hoofed my stubbornly CROOKED backpack-Court calls is "the Worm"- after the little red trucks they use as taxis, and cramming myself into the most crowded one ever for an hour, but hey) as the Loi Krathong song was playing over and over at the bus station in Phrae. It's a nice song, but imagine hearing 'Jingle Bells' over and over...you get the picture. Our pilgrimage to Chiang Mai, reputedly the best city in Thailand to see the festival, went well, although the 4 hour bus ride seemed much longer as my bladder was threatening to explode (don't you love my intimate details??). Then, after dropping our stuff off at the Green Tulip-to date, the cleanest and nicest hostal we've seen in Southeast Asia-we wandered off to see the town.
Chiang Mai is such a NICE city. Rivers and moats, malls and markets, parks and wats. Bookstores up the wazoo.
Our first day in Chiang Mai, the highlight (for me) was some Western food in the form of Pizza Hut and HARRY POTTER 7! Part One. It was fun to go to a movie in Thailand-there is a little video/song at the beginning dedicated to the king, and everyone stands up in respect.
On Saturday, Loi Krathong truly began! The day included bagels, a nice Thai massage (with TIGER BALM!!-more on this later) and a massuese that was actually trained in the art of massage, and our own little Thanksgiving feast. We, meaning me, Liz, Megan, and Court, also had our own little Thanksgiving celebration, which included a whole host of farang food, such as falafel, burritos, Subway, salsa, Coke, and salad. Not much traditional Thanksgiving food, but the sandwiches WERE turkey, and remains one of the best Thanksgivings on my record, anyway (despite the fact that we almost burned down the hostal with our "mood lighting" candles...at least we were on the roof and caught it quickly, eh?) The rooftop of Green Tulip was also the PERFECT place to get our first glimpse of the amazing lanterns lighting up the sky as part of the festival.
Loi Krathong, in case you aren't in the know, traditionally began as a festival honoring the river goddess. Basically, you make a little banana boat (the krathong) and fill it with flowers and candles and bits of yourself, i.e. fingernails and hair, to send away the bad spirits that you may be plagued with. Then you light the candle and send it down the river! The rest of the festival, the spectacular part, evolved in the places that don't have a river: giant lanterns lit up and send into the sky with wishes for the next year. I think the idea of the lanterns/boats is BEAUTIFUL and I fully intend to steal at least the lantern idea for my wedding or retirement party or something (so be warned).
After our lovely little Thanksgiving celebration, we headed out onto the town to see the festival and send up a lantern of our own! The festival, we soon discovered, is like 4th of July on crack, mixed with a street festival and Valentine's Day (you're supposed to send your boat down the river with your lover). The 4th of July part was the insane fireworks that were exploding everywhere, and as Thailand is a little lax on who can light the fireworks (although they were especially on guard when a farang had a firework in their hand, I noticed) and where they can be lit, it was slightly terrifying, with them shooting in ALL directions!
I soon decided that Loi Krathong is one of the HIGHLIGHTS of our trip. It's terrifying, yes, but beautiful, majestic, inspiring, crazy, brilliant...I could go on (I won't, though, I'm sure I already broke several grammar rules, and the fact that I don't know which ones tells you just what kind of English major I was). From a distance, the lanterns looked like fireflies, or the enchanted ceiling in Hogwarts, or aliens taking over the planet. But no, just millions of wishes being sent up into the sky!
After traversing the crowd, getting caught in the middle of a parade, we made it down to the river, the center of festivities. After fighting our way through, and taking pictures of the many lanterns and the crowds and the fireworks, we bought our own lantern and headed onto a rickety dock to light it off. It was harder than we thought-it took awhile to get it lit (of course, a friendly Thai person produced his extra lighter and gave us a hand) and after you light it, you have to hold it for awhile so it gets sufficient heat to prevent crashing and burning (we saw a lot of those, and some that got stuck in trees, or on houses...makes you wonder how many fires happen during that weekend!!). Being the crazy farangs we are, we didn't quite hold it long enough--it got really HOT--and it careened through the crowd, causing a few men to grab their women and dive out of harms way. But it went up! Nobody got hit! And we watched it go waaaaay up into the sky, holding our wishes for a better day :).
The rest of the night consisted of some dancing, although my skillz were not up to their usual level as I was ill with the bastard cold (that would, to my dismay, last for another two weeks, but at that point I just sounded like a man with a cough). It was still great to get out though! And it was fun to head back to our dorm, meet people, and sway on the roof in awe at the bee-you-tiful lanterns.
The next day, Loi Krathong continued, although the day was somewhat bittersweet as it was our last day :( with Liz and Megan! The lanterns were still beautiful, though, and Liz and Meg took us to an awesome night market where I spent waaaaay too much money, but mostly on gifts, so I don't feel SO bad :). We also went to dinner at this salad place with amazing carrot dressing...hear that, Mom? Salad! Carrots! I'm eating like a grown-up! (Not counting the Oreos...) Sunday was fairly low-key as I was now having trouble breathing in addition to the throat-0n-fire, but still, I loved Chiang Mai! After wrenching goodbyes to Liz and Megan (well, Megan. Liz snuck out at 5 a.m.) we spent another few days in Chiang Mai. That Monday was apparently THE day for Loi Krathong, which we'd hear about every other day that weekend, but it WAS! The streets were all closed off, the parade was somehow still continuing at around midnight when we finally headed home, and the crowds were INSANE. Court and I bought our own little boat for the river and put a bit of hair in it, and braved the fiery shores (Court literally got her hair caught on fire from a firework--scariest moment of my life possibly--and we both narrowly avoided several close calls to our faces and other precious parts) to send it down the river! Our candle didn't really stay lit all that long...but I still like to pretend that the river goddess is blessin' us anyway:). That evening, we watched the plethora of lanterns from our peaceful (well, peaceful except for the occasional dynamite blasts) rooftop and imagined all of the wishes, thought of our own wishes, sat there in awe. A better day may indeed be heading our way...but it's going to be pretty hard to beat that festival! :)
The next week and half we spent in Phaitone (Pie-tone) near Phrae (I can't for the life of me get the tone right, but it sounds like a cross between Pray and Pruh) with Liz the Peace Corps volunteer, volunteering, shopping, getting Thai-napped and kicking it village-style.
After another overnight bus from Luang Prabang to the border, getting back across the border, getting to Chiang Rai, then to Phrae, and THEN to Phaitone, we were beat, so the first day or so was pretty low-key. On Thursday, I inhaled some much-missed Pad Thai and orange Fanta (I might be a little addicted to both) and on Friday we chilled, organized, and were once again Thai-napped by the adorable Ba Pat! Ba Pat took us to her house to get her nephew, Bom, who is a 19-year-old university student studying English, home for the weekend, who naturally had to practice on the THREE farangs. Bom, who we had met on the bus to Phrae by chance, is adorable too, and we had so much fun with them! We went to a random agricultural university to look at the buildings and at their recent environmental efforts--using corn husks as fuel--and I taught Bom a few words in English. After that, we went to my soon-to-be favorite restaurant in the area, Kuma Garden. There, we were introduced to papaya salad (technically we had already tried it, but this was the first time we LIKED it), Thai fried chicken (nothing like ours, but amazing), cocoa yen (basically iced Ovaltine, a staple here) and some other dishes including another favorite, Cashew Nut Chicken. It was a wonderful evening, laughing, eating, and we left more in love with Ba Pat and Bom than ever! (And I fell in love with the puppies that were living at the restaurant, of course). They eventually dropped us off at the bus station, where we saw for the first time the Thai national sport--it sort of looks like volleyball, but you can't use your hands, and the ball is a small ball made out of a holey basket (does that make any sense?). I also unfortunately spilled my water in the lap of a fellow bus rider (shocking, I know) but we made it in one piece, and proceeded to rest up for another Thai-napping the following day! The next full-day Thai-napping was rather exhausting. We got up early to catch the first bus, couldn't take it as it was too full, and relied on my now expert hitchhiking skills to get us a ride into Phrae (don't worry, Mom, Liz knew the drivers, and I didn't have to show ANY leg). The little family crammed us into the truck, got us water at a stop (GENEROUS) and I'm afraid we traumatized the little boy, who refused to talk or unglue his gaze from the window pane. After perusing the shops (we do a lot of that on this trip) we met up with Ba Pat, her sister, and Bom at Tesco Lotus, a store sort of like Walmart. After being persuaded to buy coconut yogurt over plain, then being persuaded to put it back as it wouldn't last in the car, we all climbed in to visit what Liz termed the "LSD Wat." On the way, of course we had to stop and visit some local teak woodcarvers and sample some deep-fried bananas (ding ding ding!! don't worry, we got a recipe!). As for the wat...quite a wat it was! Colorful, crazy, Buddha statues and dragon statues and little mirrors and gongs to ring and good luck to acquire...and of course, we had the best guides ever in our little Ba Pat and Bom. After the wat, we said a sad farewell to Bom--he was going back to university--and we were unceremoniously switched to another Thai-napper, a crazy teacher Liz knows in Phrae. She had us take pictures with her all of her Saturday-school students, and we went off to dinner, listening to her outrageous music and laughter. The restaurant was right on a pond--you could even fish for your dinner, if you wished! It also had it's own karaoke bar, another Thai obsession I'm told (in which we did not partake, although Crazy Teacher could have with her endless consumption of whiskey sodas). It was another Thai-style dinner, full of mysterious dishes and surf-and-turfing. None of these dishes caught my fancy as much as Kuma Garden, but hey, they were okay, and the fish was VERY fresh!
The next day was somewhat of a milestone for me--I took my first bucket shower! And not out of necessity; it turns out Liz's little roommate Lyette (yet another adorable Thai person) has hot water in her bathroom, so I had used that our first night. I used it because it was a million degrees, I was sweating, and it sounded great. And great it was, even though I let out an involuntary and embarrassingly feminine squeal (well, Court screamed and had me running to the door to make sure she wasn't getting attacked by the giant spider who is a resident of Liz's bathroom fan) as the first bucket full of freezing water cascaded over my head. I can see, though, how it could get old (shaving my legs was an experience I would like to avoid) and taking one in the freezing mornings, ouch! We also made pancakes on Sunday, and we watched as Liz's neighbors watched her, mesmerized, as she ate three whole pancakes. They have an obsession with food and fat and think Western food immediately makes you chubby--they won't even have a bite of peanut butter, but they inhale rice by the gallons!!
Monday was our day of volunteering in Liz's Monday/Wednesday school (she teaches at two, if you hadn't guessed). It started out interesting, as Ba Pat and Liz gleefully announced we had to introduce ourselves to the entire school over the loudspeaker. After sending the students into guffaws when I announced my Thai name, Macgaw (still not sure why--maybe I just have a hilarious face) we went around to the classrooms, teaching kids a song from Girl Scout camp (no, I haven't forgotten those, they are imbedded in my brain) called Bananas of the Universe Unite! and sort of feeling like show monkeys. The Thai schools are very different from American--all students wear uniforms, they all have to have the same haircuts, the students have to clean up after themselves and the teachers (no janitors) and the organization pretty much ends there. But still, even though I'm not sure how much teaching I did, and how much the students learned from me or really from anyone at that school, everyone is really nice, and most of the teachers really care about their students. We were treated to lunch there, and I discovered my favorite Thai dessert: pumpkin chopped into a coconut-sugar sauce. It sounds weird, but it's amazing! I have that recipe too :). The next day, we went to Liz's other school, which seemed more organized, and a little more fun. We learned the Loy Krathong dance (for the upcoming lantern/river festival) and song, and taught the kids the words in music. We also taught the kids about Christmas, which was pretty cute. One kid wanted to put his stocking up tonight to see if Santa would come, and others looked at me like I was insane as I tried to describe Santa's mode of transportation (a flying sleigh pulled by flying deer DOES sound a little crazy, doesn't it?). After lunch, and after a few other lessons in being stalked by the paparazzi--at one point kids were hiding under cars to look at us, and all the 8th grade boys were comparing their biceps and sneaking peeks at us, and many kids came up just to stare, to ask questions in the few words of English they know, or just to wave and smile, we went on an impromptu field trip with Liz, her co-teacher and some girl students to look for this old man who makes traditional rice baskets. We observed him skillfully make a basket which would have taken me three days minimum, and enjoyed the Thai-style field trip: kids all over the place, taking the long way around, picking flowers, cartwheels in the road, no parental permission, and eventually winding our way back to the school in the blazing heat. That evening, we made spaghetti with Liz and her neighbors, which almost tasted like spaghetti from home and was a fun, hilarious time spent dancing and singing and chasing the cute kittens around (yes, I'm obsessed with the animals here, ha). Wednesday, we gave Liz a break and didn't go to school with her in the morning, although we were invited over as honored guests (they even had food brought in from a restaurant) to eat lunch with the principal. More interesting food, some delicious, some weird, all of which I had never tried before. The fish was not so good, but some asparagus/mystery meat thing was quite delicious! That afternoon, we learned how to make fried bananas, bid Ba Pat a tearful farewell (don't worry, we are already plotting on how to best bring her to America) and spent some time with a villager who is German. As one of the only farangs in town, he was excited to have farang visitors, and we had a little kanom (snack) fest in his little garden. Thursday, Court and I headed in Phrae to learn how to use the traditional indigo dye. It was fascinating to be taken behind a normal shopfront to tubs of homemade indigo dye in the yard. We dyed handkerchiefs and shirts (and I dyed part of one of my shoes) and played with their adorable puppy, Sugar. We also learned about the organic fabric and all the details of the business for Court's job back home, which is in fair trade. The organizer of the little business, yet another adorable and generous Thai lady, drove us everywhere and provided us with cookies and water. The day also included a visit to the post office and a quest for coconut milk to make the pumpkin dessert I spoke of, which, despite the overflowing of the pot of sticky coconut milk all over the floor, was a success!! That evening, Megan, another Peace Corps friend that we also love, arrived, as we were all heading to Chiang Mai on Friday for Loy Krathong!! We had a great time at the little restaurant eating Pad Thai and embarrassing the locals (at one point, Megan tried on a policeman's force ring, and the look he gave her was hysterically horrified). Megan also introduced us to Glee, and brought Oreos, so we had a fun little girl night--a good predecessor to the amazing weekend to follow! But, more on that later, it's dinner time for me!! xoxo
After bidding Liz and her village goodbye-for-now, Court and I headed across the country towards the Burma border to Mae Hong Son, to be followed by Pai and a short sojourn into Laos to renew our visas (I've quickly discovered that visas are the BANE of my existence). We stopped over for a few uneventful hours in Chiang Mai and discovered our careful plans of NOT catching the local bus and GETTING the neat little vans were thwarted, and sure enough, we got on an overnight bus that resembled a school bus, rather than the "classy" ones with seats that only recline at an awkward angle and the A/C is fully blasting you in the face all night (yes, the school bus was worse). The night was...long. Thankfully, it was dark, so we only felt the 1800-some(no joke!) turns that the mountainous road to Mae Hong Son is famous for, rather than saw them with our terrified faces. We did get there in one piece, and even got a little bit of sleep, but were again slightly dismayed when we were dropped off at the worst hour of the day: 4 a.m. Nothing is open, no one was awake expect our tuk-tuk driver who dropped us off in front of a closed hostal. Luckily, being bright resourceful young women, we made good use of our time by wandering the streets, peeing in the lawn of what possibly was an official building (when nature calls...) and outrunning the local dog pack. We also found the famed lake of Mae Hong Son which is, well, kindly, a "lake" as it's smaller than our neighbor's glorified pond. But, at least it was pretty and provided some seating to a couple of freezing girls! :) Mae Hong Son was spent walking around, getting lost, discovering the glories of the Asian night market (oh boy!) and planning our trip to Pai, where we headed the next day. This bus station was a little more successful: we snagged one of the neat little vans and met an original hippie who introduced us to his pal in Pai. Pai immediately struck me as a fun little hippie town, full of tourists--we even spotted our first fellow Americans, a couple of drunk boys trying to beat up a scarecrow, so proud--and full of fabulous, if pricey, shopping. We were still naive little travellers and got sucked into too many pairs of fisherman pants, but it was fun nonetheless. Our first day in Pai, we also had our first encounter with the art of Thai massage. Let me just say, it was...interesting. We picked a random shop on the street, and immediately it was different from the massages I'd gotten in America--no music, no quiet atmosphere, and we changed into clothes they provided (although I convinced my cousin we both needed to keep our shirts off and get under the blankets, which resulted in hilarity from both of our massueses...whoops). They also BEND you around and crack your back and push painful veins (mine shoved her fingers in my armpits for the longest, most painful ten seconds of my life) but we felt pretty dang good, and sore, afterwards. And don't worry, they definitely were NOT "happy ending"massages. :) Pai was also the sight of one of our most epic adventures yet--elephant riding!!!!!! Take a moment for !!!! I love those elephants. I pretty much filled up a memory card on my camera with elephants. If you saw them, you could not blame me! We started out fairly early for Thom's Elephant Camp, meeting two pairs of German/Swiss girls traveling the world, and proceeded to meet our lovely elephants. Ours, a subdued little girl, was named Bom Pen, which means...well, our guide didn't know, but we still loved her! The elephant guides are like acrobats, leaping up and down and climbing up the trunk, while I could barely swing my leg across, my thigh-area is still sore, and I was clinging for dear life to the rope/elephant head to avoid falling...and it's pretty far, cause elephants are, you guessed it, TALL! The ride was nice, through the beautiful hills around Pai, and just as I was getting really sore, we came to a river and swam with our elephants! It was so fun, they clearly love the water and were splashing us and each other, and one even rolled over, dislodging his riders and leaving them hanging on to avoid getting rushed down the river (and even though I loved this part, another part of me remembered how all the pipes in Liz's village dump right into the creek). After a little while longer with our Bom Pen, we utilizied the camp's hot springs. Mmmm sooo good...especially after we discovered we'd been sitting in the cold pool for ages and found the nice surprise of the hot pool, three inches away. After another trip around Pai's night market, we hit the road the next day, bound for LAOS!!! The scenery on the way to Chiang Khong (the border town) via Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai was quite beautimous. Lots of curves, hills, mountains, mist...then rice and corn. One thing I noticed on the bus was this young woman, probably younger than my ripe old 23, cuddling her little baby, who was seriously adorable. The Thais, I have observed, really love their kids. Everyone dotes on the children, and we have seen fewer children working than I noticed in countries like Peru. We have also seen so many kids with dads, even being taken to work with their dads, and I find this heartwarming, too. Enough random information, or else this blog, like the other one, will never end!! It was a long day to Chiang Khong, where we were thankfully met by another Peace Corps friend of Liz's, another Josh. Josh gave us a taste of some Northern Thai curry (delicious and spicy) and gave us a tour of his town, where we got our first glimpse of the MEKONG and LAOS, right there, right across the river!! The rest of the night involved drinking at a bicycle-themed bar with an Ethiopian and a Swiss, a couple of guy travelers, and then a cold night on Josh's floor, all before crossing the border the next day. Once again demonstrating the ridiculous generosity of the Thais, Josh's neighbor/landlord dropped us off personally at the border with fruit and smiles. So we began our first border crossing...we hopped into a little boat, zoomed across the river, filled out paperwork for awhile, got our passports stamped, and got completely ripped off for an evening ticket to Luang Prabang. (Border towns are expensive--even my pomegranate was twice as much! Pshaw). Another looooooong night bus later, 15 hours complete with flat tires, pit stops on the side of the road, and views of villages with one T.V. (although it was kind of cool to see the entire village crowded around a T.V. cheering and laughing) we arrived in the French colonial city of Luang Prabang! Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest cities we have seen so far. Giant wats everywhere, surrounded by two rivers--one of them the Mekong--and filled with crepes. I was a pretty happy camper for the few days we were there! They also have an incredible Hmong Night Market. I've been interested in the Hmongs ever since reading "A Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," and it was great to buy some of their handicrafts. Laos went by in a whirl of monks, crepes, baguettes, shopping, interesting Lao food, including some kind of "river vegetable"and lots of lemongrass, Beerlao by the Mekong at sunset, and walking a lot. It was a fun little trip, but it was also good to be back at Liz's village, which now felt almost like home! :)